With the help of significant Environmental Stewardship Fund investments, 20 years of coordinated efforts to restore life to the West Branch Susquehanna River in northcentral Pennsylvania have resulted in improved water quality and an increase in fish populations and biodiversity, according to a Trout Unlimited study.
The study was coordinated by Trout Unlimited in cooperation with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, and an alliance of approximately 30 watershed associations, conservation districts, and local businesses comprising the West Branch Susquehanna Restoration Coalition.
“The West Branch Susquehanna River is the centerpiece of the Pennsylvania Wilds, yet more than 1,000 miles of this majestic river and its tributaries are sterile or badly degraded from mine drainage and pollution from thousands of acres of abandoned mine sites,” said DEP Deputy Secretary for Mineral Resources Management J. Scott Roberts. “However, a renaissance has begun, and we are seeing measurable results that are leading to recreational and economic opportunities that will benefit the entire state.”
The benchmark study compared chemical and biological conditions of the river from the mid-1980s to 2009, and found dramatic improvements in water quality. There was a 72 percent reduction in iron and an 87 percent reduction in aluminum in Karthaus, Clearfield County. Alkaline treatment of mine discharges has significantly reduced acidity levels in the river, while pH has increased from 3.9 to 6.4. And while a 1998 fishery survey in Clinton County found only three species in the West Branch, the 2009 study found 16 species and a 3,000 percent increase in catch rates.
Overall, researchers assessed water quality and habitat data at 11 sites on the river and at the mouth of 69 mine-drainage-impaired tributaries. Fish populations were assessed at nine sites.
“This remarkable progress is the direct result of cooperation among government, the mining industry and the environmental community to seek out innovative and cost-effective ways to reclaim old mine sites and treat historic mine discharges,” Roberts said
DEP has committed significant Environmental Stewardship Fund grants to watershed groups and local governments for 620 projects to reclaim abandoned mines and plug 115 abandoned natural gas wells in four counties in the watershed. DEP, local groups, and the active coal industry currently operate 123 mine drainage treatment systems that handle nearly 9 billion gallons of mine drainage each year in the West Branch Susquehanna watershed.